Monday, March 31, 2008

Stars on 16rpm

I usually can't stand chill out/downtempo: there are good songs but they're incredibly hard to find, drowned as they are by a phenomenal amount of unspeakably horrible sonic goo that targets zombies drinking $20 appletinis after a shop in the Meatpacking district. For every memorable track like Groove Armada's "At the River," there are dozens of drecky Café del Mar compilations.

Quiet Village shows how to do downtempo right. Starting off with its name, a nod to exotica master Martin Denny, Quiet Village is a collaboration between Joel Martin and Radio Slave's Matt Edwards. Silent Movie, the duo's debut album, is a classy affair packed with pensive, lush soundscapes, but my favorite songs are the ones that sound like disco slowed down to a deliberate crawl. If you bumped the BPM on "Pacific Rhythm" and "Can't Be Beat," they'd be dance-floor scorchers; on the album, however, they amble along with tranquil grace. The string arrangement on "Can't Be Beat" sounded awfully familiar, however, and after a while I figured it out: It's lifted from David McWilliams' 1967 hit "Days of Pearly Spencer" (I'm giving out Marc Almond's cover, a hit again in 1992).

Quiet Village "Pacific Rhythm" (from Silent Movie, 2008)
Quiet Village "Can't Be Beat" (from Silent Movie, 2008)
Marc Almond "Days of Pearly Spencer" (from Tenement Symphony, 1991)

Here she is boys

There are few joys as intense as witnessing a musical where everything falls into place. This is exactly what happened when I revisited Gypsy last week. About the show I don't have much to add to my colleague Adam Feldman's breathless review: Go see it. I did have some thoughts about the issue of typecasting, particularly as it pertains to the character of Mama Rose; they're over at the SundayArts blog.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Going West

If you read only the NY Times to figure out what to do this weekend, you'd miss the best show in town: Today, the paper of record doesn't list Paula West at Iridium in its roundup of music gigs, an omission that's egregious bordering on crazy.

Fortunately my own mag is on the case: "If a night of jazz entertainment were still up to the standards set by Ella, Billie and Sarah, then San Francisco–based Paula West would be the only (yes, only) contemporary vocalist worth the price of admission. Not only is her full-bodied contralto a thing of beauty, it’s connected to an emotive intellect that makes the American Songbook speak to the future rather than the past."

It may sound like hyperbole but I can assure you it's not. I saw Ms. West yesterday evening and had a huge happy grin plastered on my face the entire time. I'm not sure there's anybody else on the scene right now who could make me feel as if I was hearing warhorses such as "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "Skylark" for the first time. And her set cannily mixes these familiar tunes with more obscure ones, as well as new arrangements of well-known songs (it took me a short while to recognize Dylan's "Don't Think Twice"). While West's dusky tone sounds positively dreamy on the slower numbers, I was most thrilled by the way she rode the beat with uncanny precision on the faster ones (she's backed by an ace quartet too). She's now joined my two favorites, Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O'Day, when it comes to jazz takes on the American Songbook. Yes, she's that good.

By the way, West's previous local engagements have been at the Algonquin's Oak Room, a place I like but which can get a bit chilly, not to mention pricey. Her natural warmth and performing style seem to fit better at Iridium. And for fans, the evening's bill is a lot lower than it would be at the Oak Room.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Credits in the straight world

Catching up with the Self-Styled Siren and her always-enlightening takes on classic Hollywood, I finally read her post about credit titles. Since the post and most of the comments focus on American movies, here are a few European titles that I particularly love:

• Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Delicatessen (1991), which matches names and objects referring to the job at hand.

• Laurent Brett's retro-minimal titles for OSS 117: Le Caire Nid d'Espions (2006). The clip starts with the very end of the pre-credit sequence. The film, a spoof of the 1960s action series OSS 117, was a huge hit in France.

• Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can couldn't be any more American—except for its title sequence, designed by the Parisian team of Kuntzel + Deygas. Although you could of course point out that they're paying cheeky tribute to Saul Bass.

• Pedro Almodóvar: so much to choose from! Here are High Heels (1991) and Bad Education (2004). The latter channels the Hitchcock/Bass/Herrmann trinity to great effect.

• best TV credits ever? The Avengers. Amazingly, the quality remained high season after season; check out a sample here. Even the much-maligned New Avengers had decent credits, which says a lot. They also had lengthy end credits, which are pretty much gone from modern series.

• Okay, The Avengers win on style, but The Persuaders' credit sequence was narratively astute as it used split screens to give the background story of this early-70s series' main characters, played by none other than Tony Curtis and Roger Moore. Plus, music by John Barry. Strangely, this show seems pretty unknown in the U.S., whereas it was hugely popular in France.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

No reunion is impossible!

Last week my colleague Mike Wolf asked me what show I would love to see even though it was highly unlikely to happen. "Dusty Springfield!" I yelped. No, a show by someone alive—picky, picky, picky. "Kylie Minogue!" No, more rock. I couldn't think of anybody at that moment and he couldn't hold it anymore: "Teenage Jesus and the Jerks are playing the Knitting Factory in June!"

Okay, I have to say that on the cool scale, that one's an 11. Teenage Jesus, of course, was the ultra-abrasive no-wave band that unleashed the young Lydia Lunch on the world. They played short songs, recorded a couple of EPs and disappeared. Now they're back for one night, with Lunch handling both vocals and guitar.

Mike has more details on the TONY blog. The only question right now: When am I going to find the time to go to the Knit's box-office and buy tickets.

P.S. Teenage Jesus' shows were brief: 15-20 minutes. Which is the way it should be. Too many bands now, full of egotistical self-regard, go on forever. I was reminded of that sad state of affair Saturday, when the utterly mediocre Bodies of Water, opening for Sons and Daughters at Bowery Ballroom, rambled on for an unconscionable 45 minutes. And another note for Bodies of Water: Vocal harmonies doesn't mean four people singing at the same time but in collaboration. Which, you know, requires some actual work.

Monday, March 24, 2008

learning by example

Reviewing Gerald Graff's Professing Literature (a history of English departments in American universities) in The Nation, William Deresiewicz mentions that scanning the postings on the Modern Language Association Job Information List is a good way to see where English departments are headed.

"The most striking fact about this year's list is that the lion's share of positions is in rhetoric and composition. That is, not in a field of literature at all but in the teaching of expository writing, the 'service' component of an English department's role within the university. Add communications and professional and technical writing, and you've got more than a third of the list. Another large fraction of openings, perhaps 15 percent, is in creative writing. Apparently, kids may not want to read anymore, but they all want to write. And watch. Forward-thinking English departments long ago decided to grab film studies before it got away, and the list continues to reflect that bit of subterfuge."

Ah yes, that things about kids wanting to write, not read. And I'd actually extend that comment to people in general. Writing, writing everywhere, and no one to read all those words! I'm not sure there's anything an MFA program could teach that could not be learned by reading intensely. And I mean reading fiction, not essays or memoirs. That applies no matter what you want to write, whether it is journalism or a novel. When I'm in a position to interview people for writing or editing positions, I always ask them about their favorite authors. It's not meant to be a trick question, but appallingly many applicants treat it as such.

It's simple: If you don't read enough, you won't realize that what you write is banal garbage.

While trying to mend a ligament a couple of weeks ago, I engaged in chit-chat with the physical therapist. Upon hearing that my job involves trying to fix other people's sentences despite the fact that English is not my first language, he asked me how I learned it. "School at first, but also listening to music in English, watching films with subtitles very early on but especially reading—lots and lots of reading." He acted surprised, as if reading was an odd choice. The real surprise is why this would come as a surprise.

Friday, March 21, 2008

This is hardcore

One of my favorite black-metal bands is Norway's Gorgoroth, fronted by a true-blue psychopath named Gaahl (that guy on the left). Alas, Gorgoroth is unlikely to ever play in the States, and there's two main reasons. One is that Gaahl has a police record, having spent time in the clink for assaulting a man; the other is that Gorgoroth's live show includes rather interesting props. Click on this link and admire photos from a gig in Oslo. Nude crucified people wearing hoods—makes Chris Ofili's painting of the Virgin Mary made with elephant dung or Andres Serrano's Piss Christ look like Pat the Bunny, huh?

It's doubtful the band could ever get a visa to play in the US, except maybe…Here's a crazy idea: The Guggenheim or P.S 1 or some such institution should bring them over as an art project. Yes, that's it! Curators, if you're reading this please get on the horn! Otherwise New York fans will have to book a ticket for the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany, where Gorgoroth is scheduled to play this summer. Not a bad option, actually, considering this year's lineup also includes the Carcass and At the Gates reunions.

Gorgoroth "Wound Upon Wound" (from Ad Majorem Sathanas Gloriam, 2007)
Gorgoroth "Untamed Forces" (from Ad Majorem Sathanas Gloriam, 2007)

Look elsewhere

I've started contributing to the new Thirteen (aka WNET, New York's public-television outlet) blog, linked to the station's upcoming Sunday Arts show, which debuts this week. You can check out my first post there.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Songs of Paris

My TONY interview with director Christophe Honoré and actor Louis Garrel can be found here. In the main piece they discuss mostly their collaboration on their new musical, Love Songs (Les Chansons d'amour); if you want want more, there's also a bonus Q&A in which Honoré expends on the film's shoot and on the one he just completed, an adaptation of Madame de Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves.

Two striking things about Love Songs: It's a French musical that does not remind the viewer of Jacques Demy every other second, and it features one of the most gorgeous casts I've ever seen. I mean, it's like some beauty bomb exploded on the set.

The songs were written by Alex Beaupain, who can actually be seen in the movie, performing "Brooklyn Bridge" in a club. Honoré, Beaupain and the cast members participated in a special DVD-release party-slash-show back in December, and it looked like a ton of fun.

Louis Garrel and Ludivine Sagnier "De bonnes raisons" (from Les Chansons d'amour soundtrack)
Louis Garrel, Clotilde Hesme and Ludivine Sagnier "Je n'aime que toi" (from Les Chansons d'amour soundtrack)
Chiara Mastroianni "Au parc" (from Les Chansons d'amour soundtrack)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Scenes from a break-up

Here's another installment in the occasional series in which I revisit some good shows of yore. Today: World of Pooh at Maxwell's on March 16, 1990—one of the most unbearably tense gigs I've ever seen. Forget pigfuck audience abuse or whatnot: We watched two people psychologically pummel each other on stage, and it really was not fun at all. It was also, of course, entirely memorable.

At that time, I was finishing my MA in history at Rutgers, though the truth is that most of my memories of that era have to do with music rather than scholarly pursuits: doing shows on WRSU, going to gigs several times a week—I'd gotten very familiar with the New Jersey turnpike (and Route 1, when I was too broke for the toll). I can't remember what prompted me to go see World of Pooh. I don't remember if I had their sole full-length, 1989's Land of Thirst, by then or if I bought it at the show. I may have been prompted by having heard the band was pals with Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, which I absolutely loved back then, ever since mail-ordering their debut cassette, Wormed by Leonard. World of Pooh was pretty emblematic of a short window in the mid-80s to early 90s when San Francisco was a hotbed of screwed-up inventivity. When I saw mentions of the NufSed label, Seymour Glass' Bananafish fanzine or producer Greg Freeman, I knew there was a good chance I'd like whatever it was.

World of Pooh was Barbara Manning on bass, Brandan Kearney on guitar and Jay Paget on drums; the group was both propelled and hampered by the love-hate relationship between Manning and Kearney, who were partners on and off stage. Except their couple was imploding at the time, and they took it all out to us, the audience. On record the songs revealed pent-up hostility beneath the jangly exterior, but even that didn't prepare us for Maxwell's.

Kearney kept berating and humiliating Manning, telling her she was fat and couldn't play, and she either demured uncomfortably or looked at him in what I now remember as stunned passivity. It was just horrible to watch, and of course completely enthralling. It didn't feel like a put-on but like the raw implosion of a couple right in front of us, Scenes from a Marriage punk rock–style. In fact, this turned out to be World of Pooh's last show, the band pretty much ending right there and then because Manning and Kearney could not function together anymore. And the weirdest part is that in between the tense banter, they managed to sound great.

Now, an art experience given extra meaning by the romantic relationship between two of the principals isn't new, from Richard and Linda Thompson to Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. And the downfall of an artistic couple can be obvious fodder for both parties. But there's something quite different about listening to a song about a break-up and seeing the break-up of both a relationship and a band with your very eyes. World of Pooh at Maxwell's was uncomfortable because we were privy to something abjectly personal. It feels quaint in our age of sharing too much, but 18 years ago hearing and seeing this hate-filled intimacy was quite jarring.

Manning went on to a rich if now tragically unheralded solo career; Paget joined Thinking Fellers; and Kearney continued being active with a variety of projects including Caroliner, Job's Daughters, Archipelago Brewing Co. and Faxed Head, as well as the NufSed label.

World of Pooh "Mr. Coffee-Nerves" (from Land of Thirst, 1989)
World of Pooh "Bone Happy" (from Land of Thirst, 1989)
World of Pooh "Mogra" (from Land of Thirst, 1989)
World of Pooh "Druscilla Penny" (a cover of an odd 1971 song by the Carpenters, one of the few performed by Richard; from a free single that came with an issue of Bananafish)

Friday, March 14, 2008

Kooky cutter

After seeing maybe ten shows and pieces of his, from opera to evening-length works, I remain unconvinced by Mark Morris's genius. The staging of Purcell's King Arthur I saw at City Opera yesterday did not change my mind; When it comes to opera, Morris probably should not be left to his own devices; that is, he should not direct and choreograph. (Big exception: Orfeo, which was pretty great indeed but feels like a fluke.)

Having gotten rid of the plot, Morris staged King Arthur as one kooky tableau after another. His worst tendency—sentimental cuteness—quickly came to the fore and didn't depart for the rest of the evening. While I did enjoy the first-act orgy (who wouldn't?), the show felt pat, pandering, lazy. And still, I applauded just to shush the lone booer. The idea is to encourage experimentation with opera, not deter it. So what if it didn't work? You could close your eyes, block out the silliness on stage and bask in the glorious music. Fine, so it kinda goes against the point of live opera, but you also gotta make the most of what you have.

And the music was beautiful indeed. You may be more familiar with King Arthur than you'd think: Peter Greenaway and his composer Michael Nyman used Purcell, and KA in particular, as the departure point for The Draughtsman's Contract (the cue "Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds" is probably the most famous), and back in the early 80s Klaus Nomi had an unlikely European hit with "The Cold Song", from the first act.

Klaus Nomi "The Cold Song"

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The fairest one of all

Like many people, I have a thorny, love-hate relationship with Disney. It's hard not to admire the craft that goes into many of the films while at the same time being repelled by their message and the image of the company as a whole. Having absurdly enjoyed the soundtrack to Enchanted (yes, that'd be the one that clogged the Oscars with three performances), I finally caught the movie on DVD. If only it could have ended after 45 minutes…

The premise is simple: a typical animated Disney princess falls in love with a prince after knowing him for about five seconds, and is dispatched to real-life Manhattan by his power-hungry stepmother; she leaves behind her meadow of singing animals and talking chipmunks to enter a city of precocious six-year-olds and Crackberry addicts. The best part is that the irrepressibly perky Giselle still acts in NYC as if she was living in animated la-la land. This is where the movie is really inspired, and I'm not sure it's entirely on purpose (whatever: I'll take it). You see, Giselle behaves as if she's clinically insane, and thanks to the comedic chops and natural charisma of Amy Adams, who plays her, the viewer is torn between feeling sorry for nutso Giselle and being totally charmed by her. In that part of Enchanted, you're watching a delusional woman act out her fantasies of a rose-colored world—like someone who's watched too many Disney movies and started believing their noxious subtext. She gets the local fauna to help her in a musical number, for instance, except of course it's rats and roaches and pigeons. Giselle is the most beautiful bag lady you've ever seen, spouting crackpot wisdom and surrounded by vermin. Needless to say, I loved that bit.

This being Disney 2008, Enchanted goes on to 1. indulge in a ridiculously over the top battle with Susan Sarandon as a giant dragon (shades of Sleeping Beauty's Maleficent of course, but boring as hell, like a cheesy outtake from Ghostbusters), 2. have Giselle save her new prince instead of vice versa and 3. have Giselle become a fashion designer, ’cause she's not a stay-at-home princess (and her helpers are animals, not Chinese people in sweatshops). Sigh.

P.S.: This is a musical in which Broadway pros like Idina Menzel and Tonya Pinkins (and Julie Andrews, who narrates) don't even get to sing!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Great Less-White Way

Last week I had the opportunity to see Come Back, Little Sheba, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Passing Strange back to back. Which means that the vagaries of chance made me see the three shows that make the Great White Way a lot less white in a row. (I was also supposed to see the Latino-flavored In the Heights but got sick; the upshot was that spending three days home allowed me to catch up with The Wire.)

The revival of William Inge's 1950s "issue play" Come Back, Little Sheba qualifies by virtue of its blind casting, as S. Epatha Merkerson plays the part created by Shirley Booth in 1950 (and which she also did in the movie adaptation). Now, I've somehow managed to avoid seeing a single episode of Law & Order in all the centuries it's been on, so I wasn't familiar with Merkerson, who has a big recurring role on that series. But she really blew me away on stage: She managed to create a subtle characterization that still resonated all the way to the last row. When her husband comes back to their house in the second act, perhaps clean after a drunken binge and hospitalization, her hesitation, her fear at meeting him at the door are just heartbreaking. I also thought the production made a good case for the play as a rather harsh indictment of a pathetic marital trajectory typical of the 1950s. (As a side note: the curse of the Biltmore Theatre, home to the stodgiest productions of the stodgy Manhattan Theatre Club, is finally broken.)

Debbie Allen's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, however, is too often misguided. Early on, Allen makes the mistake of setting up a broad comedic tone and after that it's impossible to reel the audience members back in—they react to everything as if they were watching a sitcom (down to going Awwwww when Big Daddy acts semi-affectionate toward his wife) and nothing can stop them. The reviews have been all over the map, which may have a lot to do with the audience: The critics sometimes think of its reactions instead of the director's actual intent, and those reactions are mostly completely off.

Not crazy about Anika Noni Rose, who never quite shows the cracks coursing through Maggie the Cat and sounds rather muddled in the first act. Unlike most critics I enjoyed Terrence Howard's performance as Brick, especially in the crucial second set with Big Daddy (James Earl Jones, who unfortunately sat on a wet spot the night I saw the show—probably a remnant from one of Brick's spilled drinks—and sported a gigantic stain on the back of his pants, prompting us to wonder if Debbie Allen had planned it as some reference to Big Daddy's "spactic colon"). Oh yes: The set and lighting are mindboggling eyesores that look downright amateurish.

Best of the bunch: Stew's Passing Strange. I'd really loved the show when I saw it at the Public last year, and it looks and sounds great on Broadway. Formally and thematically, Passing Strange defies the usual, tired Broadway paradigms; it tackles in a very smart (and very funny) way the issue of forming one's identity, and it does so in a context rarely (or even never) explored on stage—that of a middle-class African-American who likes pop and rock music, and who also confronts Europeans' ideas of blackness.

I'd never really enjoyed Stew's records, either solo or with the Negro Problem, and in retrospect I realize why: He was writing musical-theater songs without a musical around them. His score for Passing Strange is superb from beginning to end—much superior to Duncan Sheik's much-praised score for Spring Awakening, for instance. Add to that the best ensemble on Broadway right now, and you have a rare show. I see on Playbill that it's playing to half-full (I'm an optimist!) houses, so you should catch it before it meets an untimely demise. Or perhaps word of mouth will do its job and get some bodies in. Basically if you like well-crafted pop and rock music but despise musicals because they're "cheesy," this is the one show you can—nay, should see.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Holy Euro-mackerel!!

France has just announced that it's sending Sébastien Tellier to the Eurovision Song Contest. That, my friends, is earth-shaking news. Apparently Tellier is going to perform "Divine," a song from his latest album, Sexuality.

Two huge things here: First of all, "Divine" (which can you hear streaming here) is performed in English, which is a humongus departure for France, one of the last countries to stubbornly stick to English at the contest. In fact, it may well be the very first time the French entry will be in English.

Second, Tellier is that rare case of a totally odd bird that's also rather commercially successful—meaning he already has both a good critical reputation and a viable commercial career. The fact that France 3, the public-TV channel that runs the contest in France, went for him shows that it fully realized a drastic move was needed to both make the contest meaningful again at home and make a statement about what French music means in 2008.

With Sexuality, which is produced by Daft Punk's Guy-Manuel de Homen Christo (!!!), Tellier said he wanted to make an unabashedly, well, sexual album. (The cover will give you an indication.) The songs I've heard so far are really, really good, mixing a traditional French-pop songwriting approach—Tellier often refers to Gainsbourg and Christophe in interviews—electronics.

So it's clear why France 3 picked him. Why he chose to go is another matter, and I'm curious to see how he rationalizes that decision. My guess: He's nuts (in a good way) and he's going precisely because it's such an unexpected move for him.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

My eyes, my ears!

Reading about the Gossip's forthcoming live album today reminded me that I'd meant to post about another item related to the band's singer, Beth Ditto. Apparently Mika is a big fan of the Gossip and he invited Ditto to perform a song with him at the T in the Park festival in Scotland last summer. The result is this unmitigated atrocity.

Where to begin... First of all, it is immediately clear that nobody onstage has any clue about the, shall we say, essence of the song; if they did, they would not let that guitarist go on with his wanking fretwork. Second: Is this a cheat sheet Ditto is holding?!? Third: Enough with the pseudo-soulful vocals, which only make the hapless duo sound like rejects from American Idol—and in fact there were better performances on Idol's recent 80s night. Lucky T in the Park punters, who got to witness this karaoke fiasco. The sky looks a bit ominous at times; perhaps it opened up at the end of the song in a fit of righful retribution.

The Price is right

My interview with Richard Price is up on the TONY site. You can check out the original piece as it appeared in print, as well as "director's cut" with deleted scenes—Price had a lot to say.

Ironically, my first question to him was about the fact that while reviewers praise the accuracy of his ear, it's doubtful said critics know what they're talking about: How can Michiko Kakutani, the NY Times' lead reviewer, know how drug dealers really talk and whether or not Price's dispatches from the projects have the ring of authenticity? (By the way, I included myself in this: It all sounds "authentic" to me, but how would I know? I have to watch The Wire with subtitles!) His response, in brief: He makes stuff up—as well he should, I might add.

Next thing I know, Kakutani's review of Price's latest, Lush Life, starts thus: "No one writes better dialogue than Richard Price — not Elmore Leonard, not David Mamet, not even David Chase. Not only does Mr. Price have perfect pitch for the lingo, the rhythms and the inflections of how people talk, but he also knows how to use a line or two or even a single phrase to conjure a character’s history and emotional vibe."

I can dig the remark about conjuring a history or a vibe, but unless she's been holdin' it down in Queensbridge (and not with Maureen Dowd), how would Kakutani know if Price has perfect pitch for the lingo of the homies and cops who make up a large percentage of his characters? Her info would have to come from books and films or TV. Simulacrum feeding on itself. How Barthesian.